Trying to Tell Stories

My instinct in writing is to just say what I believe to be a true or interesting in a direct way. Maybe give an argument or two why and call it day.

So, most of what I write is kind of like this: “Hey everybody, I think blah blah blah and one time I blah blah blah’ed and yada yada yada, it was great. You should blah blah blah too.”

And even as I’m doing this and re-reading my writing, I am thinking: “this is kind of boring”, but I didn’t know how to make it better. So I’ve plugged along because up to this point, I’ve decided that writing imperfectly is better than not writing.

But, today, (March 5th, the day I am writing this), is my first day as an independent software developer, writer, or whatever I end up doing. I don’t have the safety net of gainful employment to give my work meaning. It somehow has to come from me and my own projects.

And this blog is one of those projects, so it’s not enough to just write any more. Eventually, this blog has to be good, which I define as valuable to readers (as opposed to just valuable to me as a place to practice writing).

Over the years, I have seen/read/heard a lot of advice about writing, but one really stands out to me right now, and I am trying to really understand it.

It was a podcast episode of Scriptnotes (transcript), where Craig Mazin, the writer of the Chernobyl mini-series, explained what a story is. I recommend reading the whole thing, but the essential generator of story was an argument. This interests me because most of what I am writing is my side of an argument.

According to Mazin, to generate a story, you start with an argument with a true side and a false side. Then, you create a character that believes the false side and lives a stable, but imperfect life with this belief.

The story will make that stable life impossible and eventually change the character’s worldview such that they act in accordance with the true side of the argument. The details are fascinating, and I recommend you read the transcript (the back episodes are available on a paid subscription if you want to listen to it).

One way to sum it up is:

What is more interesting: “you know, if you lie to people, they might not believe you when you are telling the truth” or The Boy who Cried Wolf?

The first example is just advice (which is actually good advice, but it’s boring) and the second is a story. It has humor, it has twists, and it has an argument exemplified by a character living the opposite of the advice. It’s not exactly the same structure as Mazin’s, but it works.

Craig Mazin writes fiction, and a lot of what he’s describing is story invention. But, it applies to non-fiction as well (see his José Fernandez example). And, of course, if I think back to interesting non-fiction books I have read, they are full of stories.

But, I also know that long-winded stories (when you want actionable advice) are somewhat off-putting to me. I personally need to find the right balance.

In my own journey of “Stating advice directly, but in a somewhat boring way” to “Telling an interesting story that incidentally makes my argument”, I am really just getting started, but I will try to tell more stories of characters living the false and true sides of arguments I am making rather than just plain descriptions of the argument.